SINCLAIR, Hon. James (1797-1856), of Braelangwell, Ross.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1826 - 1830

Family and Education

b. 24 Oct. 1797, 3rd but 2nd surv. s. of Sir James Sinclair, 7th bt., of Mey, Caithness, 12th earl of Caithness [S] (d. 1823), and Jane, da. of Gen. Alexander Campbell of Barcaldine, Argyll. m. 16 Mar. 1819,1 Elizabeth, da. of George Tritton of West Hill, Wandsworth, Surr., s.p. d. 18 Jan. 1856.

Offices Held

2nd lt. 21 Ft. 1814; lt. 1st garrison batt. 1815; lt. army (half-pay) 1817; lt. 92 Ft. 1818; lt. (half-pay) 95 Ft. 1820; maj. army 1827, half-pay 1829, ret. 1841.

Lt.-col. Ross, Caithness, Sutherland and Cromarty militia.


Sinclair’s father succeeded his own father as the 7th baronet of Mey in 1774, at the age of eight. In 1789 he succeeded his cousin John Sinclair, a suicide, as 12th earl of Caithness, but he did not assume the title until 4 May 1793, when his right was confirmed by the Lords. He was appointed lord lieutenant of Caithness, where his substantial estates centred on Barrogill Castle, near John O’Groats, in 1794, and postmaster-general of Scotland by the Perceval ministry in 1811. He was a Scottish representative peer, 1807-18. With his wife, a niece of Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, Member for Caithness, 1790-6, 1802-6, 1807-11, he had six sons, of whom the eldest, John, died young in 1802, leaving the second, Alexander Campbell, heir to the earldom as Lord Berriedale. His next brother James Sinclair followed him into the army in 1814, but his career was desultory. When the 12th earl died impoverished in 1823 his successor applied successfully to the Liverpool ministry for the lord lieutenancy of Caithness, but failed to secure their support for his pretensions to a vacancy in the representative peerage, which had already been promised to Lord Errol. His wife Frances complained directly to her cousin Canning, the foreign secretary, and insinuated that Lord Caithness might turn against government, but she received a flea in her ear.2 Soon afterwards Lord Caithness took advantage of local hostility to George Sinclair*, Ulbster’s son and heir, who had represented the county, 1811-12, 1818-20, and now seemed to be espousing the cause of parliamentary reform, to put up his brother James as a candidate for the next general election. They secured the approval of Lord Melville, the ministry’s Scottish manager, much to Ulbster’s anger.3 Sinclair, who had no property in the county, was provided with a parchment freehold. An attempt to effect a compromise failed, and at the general election of 1826 Sinclair defeated Ulbster’s son by five votes in a poll of 41.4

He made no mark in the House, from which he was given six weeks’ leave to attend to urgent business, 11 Apr. 1827. He voted with the duke of Wellington’s ministry against repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb., and paired for Catholic relief, 12 May 1828. In January 1829, complaining that he and his wife were virtually destitute as a result of the bankruptcy of his father-in-law and that he had spent heavily to secure his election, he solicited a small pension for his wife, but to no avail.5 As expected, he voted with the ministry for Catholic emancipation, 6, 30 Mar. 1829. He presented but made light of a hostile Caithness parish petition, 25 Mar., and brought up a favourable one from Helensburgh, 30 Mar. 1829. His only other known vote was in the minority for an amendment to the sale of beer bill, 21 June 1830. At the ensuing general election the return reverted to Buteshire, and at that of 1831 Sinclair waived his pretensions in favour of George Sinclair and endorsed him as a supporter of the Grey ministry’s reform scheme.6 In September 1832 he applied to the colonial secretary Lord Goderich for a post abroad, ‘however small the emolument’, bemoaning the fact that he had ‘no means of subsistence’ beyond his major’s half-pay and claiming to have entered Parliament ‘at great expense in order to support’ Canning’s administration, conveniently forgetting that it had not been formed until nine months after his return. Nothing could be done for him.7 He died at Morton Cottage, Portobello, Edinburgh in January 1856.8

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Gent. Mag. (1819), i. 363.
  • 2. Add. 40357, ff. 286, 287; Harewood mss, Lady Caithness to Canning, 25 Aug., reply, 31 Aug. 1823.
  • 3. NLS mss 2, ff. 61, 68; NAS GD51/1/198/6/16, 17, 20-22; GD136/441/29.
  • 4. Inverness Courier, 7 June, 5, 12 July 1826; NAS GD51/1/198/6/26, 27; GD136/729.
  • 5. Wellington mss WP1/987/22.
  • 6. Inverness Courier, 11 May 1831.
  • 7. Add. 40880, f. 322.
  • 8. Gent. Mag. (1856), i. 322.